I am the Rooster

 

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January is one of those times when I can’t help but re-evaluate how I’m navigating through this life. I know I’m not the only person who feels that way, but after a few months of topsy-turviness that made me feel like I was getting an ulcer, I really had to sit down and think hard about how I can make room for more creativity and more quiet in my life. I’ve always been striving for balance, but the last year was an epic fail in that regard. I had high hopes of balancing tedious jobs with fiction writing, a good diet, better exercise, and more relaxing activities—and more things that brought me joy.

 

I’m practically middle-aged, so now I have to consider things like fiber, and varicose veins, and blood pressure. Blargh.

 

I also have to consider making more time for the things that are most rewarding in this life. Like the people I love. And art. And books. Sometimes things like jobs get in the way of all that—if we let them.

 

So here’s how I started:

1. I made myself make art. I was invited to be in a group gallery show called “Lost and Found.” (Appropos, yes?) To be honest, the deadline slipped my mind, and I realized in late December that I needed to prepare at least 6 sculptural books to ship. I had three finished. This meant I had to make three more on the fly, and not get too wrapped up in the planning as I normally do. The result was a week of designing and binding books that didn’t involve serious subject matter, but were just fun to make. (I made a book with a pterodactyl, for heaven’s sake. How’s that for fun?)

 

2. My fella and I decided to have a low-key Christmas—so low-key that is was postponed until two days ago when he was back from visiting his people in the Midwest. When I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he said, “Want to pretend we’re in Iceland? Let’s buy each other books, and then spend the day reading them. And drink coffee, or tea, or bourbon.” He was referring to that lovely Icelandic tradition that someone on Facebook reminds us of every year. So we did it: we set a budget of $25 and ended up giving each other five books each. My haul: The Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Merman (Carl-Johan Vallgren), and The Palace of Curiosities (Rosie Garland).

 

3. Even though my days are pretty full lately, I’ve made time to read every day. It relaxes me, and makes the creative part of my brain work harder. I’m reading four different books right now, because I tend to skip around the way I do while watching a handful of TV shows. Thanks to my bookish appetite, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Joe Hill and Alice Hoffman, and wondering why it took me so long to find them.

 

4. I’m carving out more writing time. I have three competing novels in my head right now, and all of them are screaming to be written. I’ve tried to be methodical and make myself finish the one that’s closest to being done. I was mentally outlining the second novel, tossing around ideas of where to start. But then one day in December I woke from a dream that gave me an idea for a whole new book. I was completely psyched about the idea, and hurriedly wrote an outline so I’d at least remember the basics. I’ve fleshed it out a little more, still stumped about where to start, but itching to get that story out. Romance, comedy, birds. I find myself thinking about that one as I work on other things, to which the fella said, “I think you need to write the one you’re most excited about.”

 

5. I made myself move. I started eating more salads. I walked through the neighborhood a few times last week. I’ve been lifting weights while watching episodes of Banshee. (See, that’s sort of working out.) It’s an attempt at the diet and exercise portion of my balance challenge. I’m getting there. Small steps.

 

Here’s hoping this Year of the Rooster brings you much balance and creativity, too. We could all stand to seek the joy these days, and remember to take time for the things that are really important, and the things that bring us delight.

 

Want to see more of my tips for writing and indie publishing? Check out my monthly column “The Indie Road” on UndergroundBookReviews.org. 

Indiegogo Project Has Launched. Bird Nerds Unite.

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If you know me, you know this is a constant struggle: my day job keeps me super tired. Brain tired. It’s hard to come home and write, or print, or make books after a work day. So I keep all that creative stuff bottled up until I have enough time to dedicate to it (sometimes I luck up and it happens on a weekend). Since my job is seasonal, it means I sometimes get long-ish breaks and then I feel like a puppy who’s been cooped up inside for too long. You know that dog that bursts through the front door and starts running laps around the yard, and all you see is a blur?

That’s how I feel right now.

I was supposed to start writing my next novel on November 1, with all of the other super-dedicated NaNoWriMo folks out there. But it’s true confessions time: My word count is zero.

Big, rotund -0-.

BUT I have an excuse. I had to get this other project underway first. Because I know myself. I know I’ll lose my mind if I sit still and write all day every day. I have to intersperse something else creative (and let’s be honest, some push ups and downward dogs, too).

So first I got a little printing out of my system. I’ve had this project in my head for a long time, and we all know how that goes, when you have something taking up space in your head because you just can’t dedicate enough time to sorting it out.

I had lots of birds fluttering around in there. Birds that needed to be letterpress printed. As a calendar. As book covers.

 

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It’s been a long time since I did any real printing to speak of. So long I thought surely the members of the letterpress society were going to come into my house at night and take away my membership card.

But really, this is something I love to do. It makes me happy. And I’d stopped making time for it.

So I carved some blocks over the last couple of days. I drew birds, I carved birds, and I made a book and a mockup of this calendar for an Indiegogo project. (If I’m committed to a project with backers and deadlines, then I HAVE to finish it. No backing out. See?) When setting up the campaign page, though, I had to overcome my fear of recording my own voice. I had to get with the 2010s and shoot a video (I know. I know.). So I had my sidekick shoot a little video, I added some music, did a voice over, and planned out some pretty cool perks for anyone who wants to support the project.

 

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I’m using the funds raised from this Indiegogo campaign to get some new tools and equipment for my little home studio, so I can actually start functioning as a small business. You can help by spreading the word to anyone you know who might like some letterpress printed items. Visit the campaign page and check out the perks: they start at just $25. There’s the 12″ x 19″ wall calendar, the handmade books like the one pictured above, and a few other surprises. The best part? This calendar can be trimmed at the end of the year so you’re left with a nice print ready to frame.

So now, the writing begins. My brain is a little less cluttered and I have a plan. I’m with you, NaNoWriMo peeps. For real. But let’s hope I’ll have some breaks that include printing and book-making. Until next time!

 

P.S. I myself am a bird nerd, just for the record. I’ve been watching the titmouses in my yard go berserk over the feeder and the suet, tumbling through the branches like little ravenous acrobats. There’s a lot of twirling and loop-dee-loos happening out there, so I couldn’t help but draw them for the calendar.

 

 

My Characters are Real People (But Not in the Way You Might Think)

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Today marks the release of my latest novel, Bayou, Whispers from the Past. It’s a book that has a strong focus on how family shapes us, so today I’m writing about the question I get more often than any other.

You run this risk as a writer. People who know you will read your books and inevitably think you have written about them. (Usually, I find, it happens with an antagonist. Or when there’s a deep flaw in a character. Or when there’s a very specific bad thing that is done. People never think you’ve written about their best qualities, but that’s a different article.)  I’ve done a few interviews since I wrote this Bayou series, and in almost every one, I’ve been asked the same question: Do I base my characters on people I know?

When I wrote my first novel, as my masters’ thesis, my mother asked to read it. Afterwards, she said, “I’m going to have to have a t-shirt made that says, ‘I’m not the mother in the book.'”

She was halfway joking (I think), but it wasn’t until later that I really understood: she was focusing on the flaws of that fictional character. (Think Emily Gilmore, of Gilmore Girls fame.) She thought readers would think I’d based my deeply flawed mother character on my real mother.

Fast forward a few years later, when the Bayou series comes out. Now I’ve written mothers and grandmothers who are central figures in the story. Are they based on my real family? Sure. But not in the way you might think. And not in the way my mother might fear.

So here’s the thing about writing characters. I do base them on real people. That’s how, as a writer, you make characters real. You write about real flaws you see in people around you. You write about real moments of strength and struggle, real reactions, real idiosyncrasies that make people unique and memorable.

But here’s the kicker: it’s all composite. 

Let me explain.

In the Bayou series, the heroine Enza has a grandmother named Vergie. When I wrote Vergie, I gave her some traits I admired in both of my grandmothers. She lives in the country, like my grandmother Lula Mae: she gardened, she raised goats, and she had a strong connection to the land around her. But I also gave Vergie some of my grandma Jean’s qualities—including her journaling, her toughness, and some real words she told me. As I write, I borrow real snapshots from the lives I see around me, and fit them together to create a history I need to build in a character. Parts of Vergie’s life were real for someone in my family (her trip to Niagara Falls, the way her husband died young, the lesson she learned from going fishing), but others were completely made up based on what I needed the character to experience to drive the story forward.

So is Enza’s mother based on my real-life mother? In a lot of ways, she’s the opposite. But my real mother can be seen in other characters, like in Enza and in her friend Kate. When Enza throws a dinner party and wants everything just-so, when she begins repairing a house on her own—that’s snapshots of my real mother being woven into her character. See how this composite thing works? No one character is based purely on one person, and one real life person can show up in lots of characters in a lot of different ways.

So, yes, if you know me, then it’s likely that some little piece of you will end up in a story of mine someday. Some moment that we shared might pop up in a way you wouldn’t expect—that night when we three squeezed into the bench seat of an old pick-up truck together, or some wise thing you said after my car broke down, or that compassionate thing you did for a stranger when you thought I wasn’t looking. Those moments will come into a book someday because they caught my attention, and they made me see a new part of you, and that in turn made me who I am. And in some ways, I’m a composite of all the people in my life who have made it more interesting anyway. I’m a jigsaw puzzle and all of these moments we shared are the pieces.

I wouldn’t be me without you.

 

Read the latest review + interview with Jennifer from Dandelions Inspired. In it, I talk a little about family. If you want to see how setting becomes its own character, check out my latest article for Southern Writers Magazine

Writing Against Ennui

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Ever have those days where you don’t feel like doing that creative thing that you love? What happens when those days stretch into weeks? I’ve joked about having ennui, but they were only half-jokes.

Okay. Scratch that. They weren’t jokes at all.

I’ve given myself some sort of block. I just think about drawing, or writing, or binding a book, and I heave a cartoonish sigh and stop myself before I ever start. But this doesn’t need to be happening right now.

I have the next book in my series to write. I have two other books that need to be revised. But guess what? I don’t feel like writing. I haven’t for days. Weeks. I thought that feeling would go away. It hasn’t.

 

 

I started reading more, hoping to get inspired. I read “The Secret Place” by Tana French, “Minnow” by James McTeer. I started watching Lost again because I liked it the first time around and missed some key details, and hell, I just like those characters an awful lot. (They’re like old friends, and their struggle is worse than mine.) I’ve cleaned the house, baked banana bread, and applied to about a million new jobs. I’ve done just about everything EXCEPT write. (Excluding cover letters, that is. I’ve written a ridiculous number of cover letters).

These funks of mine are pretty cyclical. I know they’re coming, I just don’t know exactly when. So the question is, how can you prepare for this kind of thing and keep on doing what you do without this annoying interruption? There’s a voice in my head that’s yelling, “Just buck up. Pull it together and start stringing words together.”

My writing friend came for a visit today and made a list of bookish things she needs to do. She instructed me to do the same while she took a phone call. So I made the list, and it looks like this:

  1. write Bayou book #3
  2. revise thesis novel you never revised that last time
  3. finish potential YA novel with the bad ending
  4. reprint of ABC book

It’s a vague list. I know this. But here’s the thing: I really want to cross something off that list. So now I can choose one (perhaps the one that requires the least amount of work, because I’m feeling THAT lazy right now) and get started. This will create momentum, I’m sure of it, and then that momentum might carry on to the next project on the list.

When I told my friend Katie about this feeling, she said, “Omygod, did you not read my last post? I was having THE SAME THING.”

It’s true. She just wrote about this very ennui:

I would say, “I’m such a baby,” but another important thing I’m learning is compassion, which starts at home. 

Compassion, she says. And she’s right. Why are we so hard on ourselves? Sometimes I think we creative people are the worst: we are absolutely brutish to ourselves, and we hold ourselves to impossible standards. We give ourselves deadlines that anyone else would balk at.

Katie came around and cut herself some slack, and when I read her post today, I realized that I’ve been extremely hard on myself too. Part of my job is being friendly and helpful to every person that walks in the door—and giving them the benefit of the doubt when they make seemingly bad decisions. But I realized I haven’t been doing that for myself. (My subconscious has been trying to tell me, what with its desire for castaways and banana bread, but I was only half listening.)

So here I am, fully listening, giving myself a break. I will give myself tonight to finish wallowing. I will open a file, start reading an old manuscript, and make plans while Katie types furiously across the room. Tomorrow I’ll have coffee and start revising that manuscript, and create some new momentum. I’ll cut myself some slack and let myself start slow, and stop worrying about the size of these books and the vast number of pages left to write. I’ll stop beating myself up because I haven’t written fast enough or good enough. I’ll take this one sentence at a time.

 

Want more writing tips? Check out my monthly column on Underground Book Reviews

First image courtesy of pixabay.com. Second is Henri, Le Chat Noir, courtesy of Youtube.